At Large: The hills are alive

At Large: The hills are alive

After two years, Matthew JC. Powell finally adds a bit of meaning to this column's title . . .

San Jose - A town of paradoxes, where one feels a sense of both incredible power and ineffable transience. The wealth and influence of Silicon Valley is all around, in every high- technology HQ, in every six-metre-long limousine. And yet, as in all boom towns, forced into existence overnight by unexpected windfall, you can almost hear the voices saying "this can't last".

All around, the rolling hills that make this a valley lie extruded and buckled, forced from the ground by volcanic and seismic forces neither Steve Jobs nor Larry Ellison could hope to control. Their geological arrogance belies the cracks, landfalls and craggy rock faces that remind me that - on the San Andreas fault - this, too, can't last.

My apologies to anyone who's having trouble holding down their lunch at this point. As this is my first "At Large" column written "at large", I decided to start with the kind of pretentious travelogue that usually kicks these things off.

I spent a day or so when I arrived here driving around, just getting a feel for the way Silicon Valley fits together, and doing a little shopping. You need a car in Silicon Valley. Everything is distant from everything else, every billion-dollar company seemingly intent on not being within throwing distance of another billion-dollar company. There is public transport, but I'm yet to see a bus or cable car actually stop for passengers. I think they're just for show - paid for by billionaires who want to give the town a more "lived in" feel. In this part of the world, there are serious moves afoot to equip street beggars with facilities to accept credit cards.

Other side of the road

Finance is not merely a part of life, it is life. As I was driving, the hills seemed to be yelling at me "we'd make a really good metaphor", at the same time as the other drivers seemed to be yelling at me "other side of the road, you idiot!" All in all, quite a noisy little journey.

I'm here for a developer conference as a guest of Apple Computer, the company that - arguably - is more closely identified with Silicon Valley than any other. Jobs and Wozniak's garage startup may have arrived 40 years after Hewlett and Packard's, but it was most certainly a garage. And where HP slowly and gradually built its wealth and power, Apple came from nowhere with an arrogant swagger and no respect for the established leaders of its industry. Silicon Valley startups are meant to have that kind of hubris - it's what makes them fun.

And, arguably, Apple fits the strained metaphor of my first couple of paragraphs better than any other in the Valley. Jobs forced this company into being by sheer will, made it successful with a legendary charisma, and was forced out by one of the more bizarre and unpredictable earthquakes in corporate history. After that, the company rose incredibly rapidly (in much the way meteors don't) to a position at the top of its industry. What no one realised at the time was that this rise was more seismic than anything else: John Sculley was never, in truth, in control of the forces that made Apple that big, any more than he could control the forces that began its rapid slide to near oblivion.

With Jobs back in control at Apple, he's pitching battle between his own will and those same seismic forces. The attendees at this conference are clearly willing to bet on Jobs. It's tough odds, but at the moment he does appear to be slightly ahead. These are, of course, the same people who have been drinking Apple's Kool-Aid for a couple of decades now, even when it tasted a bit like almonds. Don't worry if you don't get that - trust me on this, it's way funny.

Jobs' ability to stare down the world and win is indicated by the success of his multicoloured computers, which have become fashion statements in an industry not particularly given to fashion statements. Epson has even announced that it will shortly release a printer in all five translucent iMac colours. Not bad for a company that was irrelevant a couple years ago.

An interesting thing, though: I saw an ad on the TV the other night for a clothes store called "The Gap".

At The Gap, they're having a promotion involving young athletic-looking types (the sort developers wish they could be, but never will) dancing about praising the virtues of khaki as the epitome of fashion.

The question is, will Jobs take notice and bring out iMacs in high-fashion beige? Perhaps, like so many things, it's a question I'd rather not answer.

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